Cheese · Cheesemaking

A Few Bumps in My Cheese Road

I have a confession to make.

It pains me, but I feel obligated to speak of this.

Back in February, when we went to Maine, and stayed for two nights at my friend Ralph's house, I had planned to show him how to make whole milk ricotta cheese.  I had him buy a gallon of whole milk, pasteurized but not ULTRA-pasteurized, and I would bring the instructions and the citric acid.

And on that Monday, while Bill and the kids were off skiing, we put the milk in a pot on the stove, and started in. 

And the milk never coagulated.  I tried raising the temp a bit more, because sometimes that works.  I even added a smidge more citric acid.  Nothing.  Just cooked milk.  Which we poured down the drain.  Very frustrating.  Not sure what went wrong.  But something did, clearly. 

So though I've ordered and received my hard cheese kit and my wax, so I can make cheddar and gouda and so forth, I have put off making anything.  Because yes, my confidence has been shaken.

And I don't like that feeling.

And I needed to do something about that.

Also, I've promised to invite someone else (a fellow mom-of-a-kindergartener) over the next time I make cheese.  And while I nodded vigorously and spoke with confidence and nonchalance at the time, inside I was thinking "how can i make cheese in front of someone if i might screw it up??????  I'll be the laughingstock of the kindergarten mothers!!!!!!!"  I admit, my thoughts go a bit overboard at times.

Anyway, I needed to boost my confidence level a bit before bringing anyone over to witness my labors, so I figured over the weekend I'd make a couple of batches of soft cheeses.  On Friday I picked out recipes and purchased dairy products.  I decided to make a mascarpone, and either ricotta and mozzarella or mozzarella and ricotta salata.  (Ricotta salata is a drier, slightly saltier version of regular ricotta.) 

On Saturday morning, after making corned beef hash out of last Wednesday's leftovers, I got started.

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I poured half a gallon of half and half into the bowl of my makeshift double boiler.  I measured out cream of tartar.  (The recipe called for tartaric acid, but I read that I can sub in cream of tartar – I'd just need to double the amount called for.)  I had my little thermometer, my spoon, and a collander lined with butter muslin nearby.  I was all set. 
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I heated the cream to 185 degrees F, according to the instructions.  Then I added the smaller amount of the range called for in the recipe, and stirred.  And stirred.  At some point during the stirring, the cream is supposed to start to thicken and resemble, sort of, cream of wheat.  I stirred.  And stirred. 

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And still, no cream-of-wheatiness here.

I turned the flame back on and figured maybe I just needed to bump the temperature slightly.  That's happened to me before with cheese-making.  Maybe the thermometer needs recalibrating.  But no.  Nothing.  I added a smidge more cream of tartar.  Didn't want to cause the cheese to be grainy (especially not a mascarpone, which is smooth like buttah), but I wanted SOMETHING to happen. 

And nothing did.  I stirred.  I messed with the temperature.  I glared.  I reread the instructions seventeen times.  I stirred some more.  I dumped in the rest of the cream of tartar I'd measured out, and added another pinch for good measure.

Honestly, at this point I didn't even care how the mascarpone might taste, I just wanted some coagulation to take place. 

It never did.  And as I'm standing there glaring at the half & half (perhaps hoping it would all coagulate out of fear), and looking at the thermometer reading, and wondering if I should just dump the whole little jar of cream of tartar in and FLAVOR BE DAMNED, and I was wondering if somehow I'd been cursed by the cheese gods, a thought elbowed its way to the front of the line and waved, grimacing, at me.

I looked at the empty half & half container.

Guess what I saw.

Yep.

"Ultra-pasteurized."

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

Well, at least that explained it.  The half & half, ulta-pasteurized as it was, would not coagulate properly no matter how much acid I dumped into it.  So while it was my fault for not paying attention to the writing on the container, at least I hadn't messed it up during the heating-and-adding-stuff process.  That was consolation, of sorts.

So I dumped the half & half and decided to make something else. 

I was going to make cheese that day, dammit, if I had to round up some cows and milk them myself to get it done.  (Which would be wonderful.  I'd love a small farm.)

I decided to make mozzarella.  Haven't made any in a while.  Sounded yummy.  So I got out my whole milk and my rennet tablets and the citric acid and washed the thermometer and my spoon and started in.

And, just for kicks, I thought I'd try the 30-Minute Mozzarella in Ricki Carroll's Home Cheesemaking.  I've used her mozzarella recipe a number of times, but I rebelled against using the microwave.  I'm a little weird like that at times.  I decide I'm going to do things by hand, without (too much) mechanical or technological aid.  I used to be really obsessive about that, in certain instances, and then for some reason I was thinking about the scene in Fiddler on the Roof, when the tailor Motel Kamzoil gets a foot-powered sewing machine and everyone is marveling at how fast and efficient it is…and…well, yeah.  There's nothing wrong with that.  So why was I insisting on hand sewing EVERY bit of the quilts and things I was dabbling in back then?  Why not just save the hand work for the areas where that was better, like doing applique, and use the machine for plain old seams and things?  Duh.

So where was I?  Oh, yeah, the microwave method of mozzarella-making.  Why not?  Plus, I figured it might be quicker.  And a little less messy than my method, which involves hot whey dripping down my elbows.

All you do, once the curds have formed, is scoop those curds out of the whey and into a microwave-safe bowl.  Strain off as much whey as possible, and then nuke the curds on high for one minute.  Then you knead the curds, either by hand or with a spoon, to redistribute the heat and to get more of the whey out.  Strain off the whey again, and nuke again for 35 seconds.  Add salt if you want to at this point, then knead and strain.  Microwave another 35 seconds.  And then? 

Oooooooh!  Pretty!

I was amazed.  The lumpy little curds had been transformed into a soft, silky smooth cheese with a very hot (to touch) dough-like consistency.  It was gorgeous.  Really.  Kneaded it a bit and revelled in the feel of it.  Completely soft and pliable, it was a joy to handle, and I wished I'd doubled the recipe.

I formed little bite-sized balls with it (and ate some) (and brought some outside to Bill so he could be amazed, too) and let out a big sigh of relief.

The cheese gods have not cursed me.  Yay!

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